WholeTone Music Academy’s Protest Choir Sings With Purpose
The Protest Choir sounds soulful.
“May the life I lead / Speak for me / May the life I lead / Speak for me / When I come to the end of the road / And I lay down my heavy load / May the life I lead / Speak for me.”
The choir was made up of queer- and trans-identifying individuals and people of color. They gathered at WholeTone Music Academy in the spring of 2017 to learn how to amplify their voices—both literally and in effect.
The power comes through on the recordings that remain from the Protest Choir’s first run. But to see the songs in person, or with the energy of a rally to tap into, could only magnify their impact.
Like so many others, Nora Maynard was spurred into action by President Donald Trump’s election. The founder of WholeTone Music Academy went to Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, and when she returned to Somerville, she looked to what she could do at home.
“I felt like I needed my work to be a little bit more politically oriented,” Maynard says. “I realized that one thing I could offer would be a way to help people who were protesting not lose their voices. I went to a bunch of marches, and realized that almost all the time, I heard the person on the megaphone losing their voice.”
She originally thought she could give free voice lessons to organizers—which, she notes, she would still be happy to offer—but that plan morphed into the Protest Choir. Maynard thought singing could help build solidarity among protesters, and even sidetrack counter-protesters.
Maynard chose to limit who the first iteration of the choir was meant for: “It was only for people who were queer, trans, and people of color, because I felt that’s where there was the most need, and those are people who have been politically engaged for the longest, and whose voices I want to amplify the most.”
The Protest Choir sessions were made up of three parts: a body mapping and awareness workshop, “a vocal workout,” and time to sing march songs, Maynard explains.
The Protest Choir was exactly what Anaís Azul needed. She was frustrated with a system at her college that meant she couldn’t take voice lessons—even though she was studying music composition and loved singing.
In the choir and in Maynard, she found the opportunity for vocal growth. Azul ended up taking voice lessons with Maynard for a year, and now works at WholeTone. As an undergrad at the time, she couldn’t pay for the lessons, but cooked Maynard food in exchange. That’s a trend that holds true for the choir: No one will be turned away because they can’t pay—just discuss a barter with Maynard.
Azul got the chance to apply what she’s learned when she was asked to lead songs at a rally decrying the deportation of Moroccan native Siham Byah. The 2017 deportation separated Byah, a single mother, from her then-8-year-old son, according to the Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
The cause is particularly meaningful to Azul, who is an immigrant.
“I sang a song I had written called ‘Listen,’ which is a protest song about being an immigrant in the Trump era,” Azul says. “I felt like I couldn’t have done that without Nora, I couldn’t have done that without the awareness she gave me of my body.”
“To lead songs and hold space for that creativity to blossom in a place that can be really, really infuriating—when you’re in a protest, you’re either very sad, or angry, or something like that—the music brings a sense of peace,” she adds. “And so to be able to bring that, and to have such a positive response from folks at the rally, was really beautiful. And it was just with my voice.”
Maynard says she’s attended a handful of marches with people from the choir, including a 2017 climate rally and a 2018 march in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Maynard is gearing up for a second round of the Protest Choir, which starts Feb. 6. She plans to do 12 weekly sessions, and alternate meetups between all-inclusive lessons and sessions intended specifically for queer or trans individuals or people of color.
The choir will meet on Sundays. Each session will cost $5 to $30 on a sliding scale, but Maynard asks that anyone who can’t afford to pay talks to her about a barter.
You don’t have to be a trained singer to be part of the choir, Maynard emphasizes—if you “feel like you can sing along with the radio,” you’ll be just fine.
“Finding the Protest Choir, and finding Nora, was honestly life changing,” Azul says. “She really holds spaces for growth, spaces that don’t make you feel like anyone is trying to be better than anyone else. We’re all just here to support each other and grow and sound together.”